I am fascinated by how language changes. Take the word “like”. This used to be a plain little word.
In one meaning it’s somewhere between love and mild interest. I “like” you. Not enough to lust after you, but more than a passing fancy.
Or something is “like” something else. It’s not exactly the same, but it’s not different either.
Like used to be a pretty beige sort of word. It slotted somewhere in the middle of everything, minding its own business. Contentedly being more or less unremarkable. An ish sort of word.
Then the kids got hold of “like” and pimped my ride with it. Now “like” has a whole new meaning. Here’s the immortal Taylor Swift being typically autobiographical about the latest ex-boyfriend:
I used to think that we were forever ever
And I used to say, “Never say never…”
Uggg… so he calls me up and he’s like, “I still love you,”
And I’m like… “I just… I mean this is exhausting, you know, like,
We are never getting back together. Like, ever”
If you are of a certain vintage, like me, this probably looks appalling. That’s four likes in 50 words. I make that 8%. If we start from the “Uggg”, that’s four likes in 34 words, which gives it a like coefficient of 12%.
And that’s, like, a lot. Even “the” and “and” rarely get to 12%. On a good day.
I have a confession to make. To us old fogies, these “likes” sound like “blah”. We can’t get over how many there are. That means they have lost all meaning to us.
It’s a bit like when someone has a verbal tic over a filler word. “Actually” is a common filler word. Or “I mean”. Or “you know”.
I work with an unfortunate soul who has all three. If you listen to him speak, he can’t help himself from saying things like: “Actually, I mean … if we do this, you know, then this might happen. I mean. That wouldn’t actually be a bad thing, you know.”
And after a while you stop listening to what he is actually saying because all you can do is notice the number of times that he says his filler words.
So is “like” just another filler word? A pause in the dialogue while you think of what to say next? The equivalent of a yob using a word beginning with f ten times in a sentence?
Not really. “Like” is a whole lot cleverer than that. You see, it’s part word and part punctuation. And that makes it a lot more interesting than us oldies might realise.
It struck me the other day. I was walking through a park and doing my usual writer thing of ear-wigging the conversations around me for new material. I overheard two teens talking. Not just any old passing the time of day talking. They were like-talking.
“And he was, like, … I was, like, …”
I realised that they were using “like” as punctuation. What they really meant to say was that “the next thing I say after like is an impersonation of what happened”.
Think of it as opening speech marks. The “like” tells the listener that what comes next isn’t me talking in the here and now. It’s me repeating what happened in the past.
In effect, the modern meaning of “like” is sharing a virtual selfie. This thing happened to me and I want to share it with you. Saying “like” is the equivalent of pressing play on your phone.
It’s not the only modern meaning of “like”. It can also be used for emphasis. “This is, like, fantastic” seems to mean something like “this is really fantastic.”
But let’s stick with the selfie meaning. If we go back to the Taylor Swift quote, she says:
so he calls me up and he’s like, “I still love you,”
The bit where she says “he’s like” she is telling us that the next bit of speech is her impersonation of what he said. It’s not only repeating the words that he said. Tay also lowers her voice and impersonates him:
Take a look. The “like” verse comes in at 2.20:
Isn’t that a remarkable thing? This new “like” isn’t just a word. It’s a new way of talking. It’s a way of sharing a story complete with sound effects and impersonations. Sometimes it even includes hand gestures and facial expressions. “I was like whoah! And she was like uggh! And I was like naaah!”
Then I realised that I’d heard that kind of conversation before. It’s something that my elderly Mum does.
Sometimes she will want to tell a story about something that has happened to her. Usually it’s about someone in the council or the doctor’s surgery who has annoyed her. Then we get into the “he said, I said, he said” routine.
So I said …
And he said …
Then I said …
And you’ll never guess what he said …
Forgive me, Mum, but sometimes I zone out in these stories. All I can hear is the rhythm of “he said, I said, she said” washing over me like a tide.
Of course, what my Mum is doing with her “saids” is exactly the same as what the kids are doing with their “likes”. It is what mankind has been doing ever since we daubed berry juice on the wall of our cave and decided that it looked a bit like a bear.
We are telling each other stories. This thing happened to me and I need to tell you about it.
Technology might have something to do with it. Most of us have these wonderful devices in our pockets called mobile phones. This is something that we could barely dream of when I was growing up in the sixties and seventies. We thought that Captain Kirk’s communicator was an amazing thing. A little box that could call the Enterprise whenever he wanted.
Little did we know that within a few short years we would have phones that could do far more than that. They can access the world’s knowledge, play any song, show us a map of the world, contain all the world’s books and art, translate anything, do anything …
And what do we do with these wonderful devices? We take pictures and videos to share with our friends. Mostly pictures of cats. Or ourselves standing in front of some monument or celebrity. Or ourselves doing something that we really shouldn’t be sharing with others.
In other words, we are doing exactly the same thing as our ancestors splattering berry juice on the wall. It’s what I am doing right now.
We are telling each other stories. The way we tell stories changes, but the need to share experiences is a constant.
And that is, like, a wonderful thing. Like.